I Never Thought I'd End up in the Psych Ward, Nearly a Decade Sober

By Sally Rubenstein 02/17/16

I experienced a psychotic break with 8 years of sobriety under my belt. Turns out I'm not the only one.

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Only a few weeks before the day that marked eight years of life without alcohol, I woke up in a locked psychiatric ward in New York City. Hardly able to move as I detoxed from the Haldol, Benadryl, and Ativan that I was shot up with to combat psychosis, I didn’t feel like I was leading a life "beyond my wildest dreams" that people in AA meetings often describe themselves as having after they stopped drinking. 

I drifted in and out of sleep while my roommate, a woman nearing her sixties, repeatedly sang, “Mi negra si me rescatan de aqui.“ (My love, if I am rescued from here.) 

Hours later, still coming off of the heavy sedatives, I sat in the dining hall, listening to a woman with an uncombed afro scream at a staff member, “Get me a ginger ale, motherfucker.” 

About a year before that, an AA friend had been hospitalized in a psych ward. I was shocked when she told me that she had wanted to kill herself after being sober for eight years. I distanced myself from her. Then I recalled another sober person who I heard had been hospitalized. Then another. 

All were women, all were hospitalized when they were at six to ten years of sobriety, and most of them left the hospital with a bipolar diagnosis for the first time. 

We were all in our twenties or thirties, we all had been treated by psychiatrics previously, and we were all under a lot of stress when we were admitted. Some were on prescribed psychiatric medications. Some weren’t. 

I recently spoke to these three women to try to make sense of why we might have all gone crazy, especially after years of not drinking. All of them were released from the hospital more than a year ago. One hasn’t been hospitalized for almost a decade.

Anne, 34, had to be dragged to the hospital by the police. “I was open to the idea of being hospitalized, but I wouldn’t go in by myself,” she said.  

“I had stopped sleeping and I was going through a change at work,” she continued. “Because I was up thinking about the changes, I went weeks without a good night’s sleep.” Anne hadn’t slept for four nights before she had a psychotic break. 

She had been diagnosed with depression and was treating it by going to therapy when she was hospitalized. She hadn’t been prescribed medication, although she had taken it in the past.

Like Anne, Rose’s hospitalization was also her first time in a psych ward since she’d been sober. They both had stays before they stopped drinking. 

“I’d never been psychotic before this time,” Anne said. She left after a 10-day stay with a bipolar diagnosis.

Rose had also not had a drink in ten years when she was admitted to the hospital. She spent Christmas in the psych ward. 

“One month prior, I began having severe manic episodes,” Rose said. She was struggling to pay rent and was under a lot of stress to find work. She blames the hospitalization on “poverty and the money hustle, high stress and anxiety, and dabbling in obsessive-compulsive behaviors with unavailable men.” She’d fallen into a deep depression, stopped going to meetings, and stopped going to therapy and talking to friends. 

She became suicidal. 

“I was on one too many medications for depression (Wellbutrin, in addition to Prozac and Lamictal), which was causing a lot of mental static, making me feel overly speedy, and making it hard to concentrate,” she said. Her moods are now managed with what she says are minimal doses of meds. 

The wrong medications were also an issue for Catherine, 41, when she was hospitalized. “In sobriety, it took over ten years to get on the right medications,” she said. “I don’t think that I was on the right meds.”

She was diagnosed as bipolar after a psychotic episode when she was sober and in her twenties. 

At six years of sobriety, she attempted to overdose on the drug that she was prescribed to treat her bipolar condition. She suggests that people with mental illness seek treatment from a doctor who knows about substance abuse. 

AA’s official stand on medication is that if you need prescription drugs, take them under a doctor’s supervision.  

“The AA Member—Medications and Other Drugs” outlines the position, noting that some people have to take medication to stay sober. It encourages doctors and patients to talk about substance abuse openly. Most importantly, lay members of AA should not give medical advice. 

Catherine, Anne, and Rose began to attend AA meetings more frequently after they were hospitalized, noticing the impact it has on keeping their stress levels down.

“I try to go to no less than four AA meetings a week,” said Rose. “I attend therapy once a week, pray and meditate regularly, keep in touch with a sponsor, sponsees, and sober friends, and try to keep my work-life balance manageable. And I take my medication as prescribed.”

Anne says she goes to lots of AA meetings still. She’s on medication now and tries to stay away from a lot of stress. “Most of all, I prioritize sleep, exercise and good diet.”

Rose says AA helped her then and now. She had visitors every day. “The first was one of the last people I wanted to know because she was so well-connected,” she said. “Through her, everyone she thought would want to know did find out, and they all came, and called. It was humbling.”

Sally Rubenstein is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.

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